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Detail of the hand section of the jade burial suit of Liu Sui, Prince of Liang, of Western Han

Fit for a King: Royals of Ancient China Buried in Jade Ceremonial Suits

Perceptions of the afterlife have inspired thousands of weird ideas for burial rituals around the world. One example comes in form of the remarkably beautiful and fascinating ceremonial suits created with jade pieces during the reign of the Han dynasty in China.

The cold and smooth jade stones put in the incredibly beautiful mosaic symbolizing the wealth of the Han Dynasty covered the remains of royal family members. Their ceremonial suits made of polished pieces of jade are one of the most surprising elements of ancient Chinese burial traditions.

Symbols of Chinese Wealth

In Chinese, they are called 玉衣; pinyin: yù yī , meaning ''jade suit''. For centuries, people believed that the jade burials were just a legend. People couldn't imagine that the rulers were so wealthy to have covered their bodies with precious jade. However, in 1968 researchers announced the discovery of a tomb described in old texts. It was a huge sensation in China and around the world. After centuries of confusion regarding the Han dynasty’s legendary burials, the truth was finally revealed.

The Han dynasty was extremely powerful and ruled between 206 BC – 220 AD. It is one of the most iconic dynasties of the country. Even now the ''Han people'' remain the major ethnic group of China and they are proud of their connection to ancient royalty. There are two main periods of the Han Dynasty: the Western Han, known also as the Former Han (206 BC – 9 AD) and the Eastern Han sometimes called the Later Han (25–220 AD). The Three Kingdoms period arose following the Han Dynasty and it lasted until 280 AD.

A late Eastern Han (25–220 AD) Chinese tomb mural showing lively scenes of a banquet, dance and music, acrobatics and wrestling, from the Dahuting Tomb.

A late Eastern Han (25–220 AD) Chinese tomb mural showing lively scenes of a banquet, dance and music, acrobatics and wrestling, from the Dahuting Tomb. ( Public Domain )

Tombs of the Jade Kings

The Han Dynasty royal tombs brought amazing jade shrouds to the world and they changed perceptions of burial practices. A tomb dated to the Spring and Autumn period (771 - 476 BC) consisted of the burial of dukes from the Jun state in Quwo who were covered with jade suits. Later, researchers found one of the most expensive jade suits in history. In 1983, in Dingxian, Hebei, researchers discovered a suit that belonged to Prince Huai, made of 1203 pieces of jade and 2580 grams of golden thread. The most sophisticated suit consisted of 2498 pieces of jade.

Jade shroud for Liu Xiu, King of Zhongshan in the National Museum of China, Beijing.

Jade shroud for Liu Xiu, King of Zhongshan in the National Museum of China, Beijing. ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )

All the newer discoveries in the royal and noble tombs were characteristic of the Han Dynasty period. A description by Michael Priestley says:

''The tombs were large chambers dug out of the mountainside. Each tomb had an entranceway, two side rooms for storage, a large central hall, and a chamber in the back where the coffin was placed. One of the side rooms (to the north) held jars of wine, grains, meats, and other foods. In the other side room (to the south) were chariots and the remains of horses. The central hall was set up for a large banquet with wooden canopies and tables set for guests. Near the tables were pots, utensils, and clay figures made to look like servants. At the back of the tomb was the burial chamber. It was lined with stone slabs. In addition to the coffin, it contained stone figures of servants, lamps, incense burners, and wine flasks. In short, the tomb held everything the prince might want in the afterlife.''

The structure of the jade suits is a unique composition with pieces of stone. The stones had been cut in square and rectangular shapes. Some of the suits also had trapezoid, rhomboid, and triangular shapes, but they were not as common as the first two. The unique technology of joining the stones by wire allowed the creation of larger shapes with groups of jade stones.

Close-up of a jade burial suit with replaced copper wire in the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum.

Close-up of a jade burial suit with replaced copper wire in the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum. ( CC0)

To hide the wire, the artists used pieces of silver or gold. However, some of the suits had silk ribbons or thread overlapping the outer lines of the stones instead.

Chinese jade burial suit.

Chinese jade burial suit. (Flickr - CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 )

The most important resource related to the suits comes from the Book of Later Han , which described the traditional way of making them. These descriptions prove that a jade burial suit wasn't easy to make. Moreover, it took a few years to make just one jade suit with the traditional method.

Page from Book of the late Han.

Page from Book of the late Han. ( Public Domain )

The magnificence of the shining luxurious stones sheds light on the wealth of Han dynasty rulers and the incredible skills of the ancient Chinese artists who created the suits too.

Magnificent Chinese Tombs

The monumental and rich burials of ancient Chinese rulers remain one of the most impressive remnants of this fascinating civilization’s past and its funerary traditions. The jade suits were extremely expensive, so most people, even nobles, couldn't afford them.

However, with time the aristocracy found a way to create cheaper projects out of similar artifacts. They used copper instead of gold or silver to lower the suit’s cost. It seems that the position of the ruler and the impact that the person had made during his/her life in the court dictated the choice of the tools the artists could use to create their jade suit.

Jade burial suit at the Museum of the Mausoleum of the Nanyue King, in Guangzhou.

Jade burial suit at the Museum of the Mausoleum of the Nanyue King, in Guangzhou. ( CC BY-SA 2.5 )

After examining suits discovered in Macheng, researchers concluded that the instructions described in the Book of Later Han weren’t always followed. There was a way to make a simpler version of a jade suit.

Regardless of the quality of the materials and methods used, the jade jewels that were used to make impressive ornamentation for the afterlife became legendary symbols of China and they are recognized as one China’s greatest treasures today.

Top image: Detail of the hand section of the jade burial suit of Liu Sui, Prince of Liang, of Western Han ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

By Natalia Klimczak

References:

Jade Burial Suits, available at:
http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/jade-burial-suits

Jade Burial Suits by Michal Priestley, available at:
https://www.literacyworldwide.org/docs/default-source/bonus-materials/bk497-text-jade-burial-suits.pdf

Precious Ancient Chinese Immortality Suits Made Of Jade, available at:
http://www.messagetoeagle.com/precious-ancient-chinese-immortality-suits-made-of-jade/

Han dynasty 'immortality suits' go on show by Maev Kennedy, available at:
https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2012/may/03/han-dynasty-immortality-suits-show

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